The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing's Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics.
Recent years have witnessed growing maturity and sophistication in Western studies of Chinese calligraphy, as monographs and exhibitions have focused new attention on this art--attention it surely deserves given its preeminence among the visual arts in China. Scholars outside the field of art history may wonder, however, how this tradition of writing as a fine art can be studied in relation to historical, social, or cultural phenomena. In spite of the pictographic origins of many Chinese characters, calligraphy, unlike the representational arts of painting or sculpture, does not point directly to anything in the external world. As written communication, calligraphy conveys meaning through words, but it was rarely the content of a text that determined its significance as a work of art. The texts, for example, of brief letters by Wang Xizhi (303-61) that are among the most treasured artifacts of Chinese calligraphy consist of banal social correspondence.
In the book under review Amy McNair demonstrates with great authority how calligraphic style could function as an implement of political argument. She achieves this by re-constructing the ideological and artistic discourse of Northern Song scholars associated with the conservative faction, most notably Ouyang Xiu (1007-72) and Su Shi (1037-1101), who saw in the calligraphy of the martyred Tang dynasty statesman Yan Zhenqing (709-85) a visual embodiment of values with which they hoped to associate themselves. By arguing that Yan's bold, unmannered calligraphic style reflected his unshakable integrity, and by rejecting, at least in theory, the more superficially elegant manner of Wang Xizhi promoted by the imperial court, these Northern Song men used calligraphy as a means of defining themselves and their political independence.
The key term in McNair's book is "characterology," which she defines as a theory of the study of man based on the belief that "moral character can be deduced from an examination of a person's external manifestations, such as appearance, behavior, or aesthetic endeavor." McNair does not give a direct Chinese counterpart for this term; xiangshu or physiognomy might be related to it. But she does offer concrete examples of how characterology could shape responses to calligraphy. A vivid instance of moral scruples canceling out aesthetic appreciation cited by McNair comes from an autobiographical anecdote attributed to Zhu Xi (1130-1200). As a young man Zhu Xi had studied the calligraphy of Cao Gao (155-220), but he abruptly rejected this model after a friend who studied the calligraphy of the virtuous Yan Zhenqing reminded him that Gao was a "usurping traitor of the Han."
The conviction that moral rectitude was expressed through calligraphy gives special significance to the "upright brush" of McNair's title. This originated as a technical term (zheng bi) for a method of writing in which the animal-hair brush is held perpendicular to the writing surface and moved with even pressure to yield a firm, rounded, unmodulated line. It is the brush technique normally used to write seal script. McNair cites passages from Northern Song texts to show that the concept of the "upright brush" and calligraphy written in this technique came to be understood as expressions of "upright" human traits such as rectitude and loyalty. Calligraphy done with a slanted brush (ce bi) moving obliquely across the writing surface and producing sharp, angular shapes, seen in the running script of Wang Xizhi, was considered slick and superficial. It was the innovation of Yan Zhenqing to employ centered-tip brushwork in standard script, imbuing his characters in this script type with an unprecedented grandeur and calm monumentality.
Although McNair argues that the "upright brush" is more natural, the degree of hand control and concentration necessary to write this way is not natural at all--a fact that an hour's practice with a calligraphy brush will confirm. Most calligraphers used both techniques. Ironically, Yan Zhenqing's Northern Song admirers rarely used the "upright brush" themselves, and among the eleventh-century calligraphers represented in her book, it is only Cai Xiang (1012-67) who clearly imitated Yan's style. MeNair attempts to resolve this tension between theory and practice by arguing that for Ouyang Xiu, Shu Shi, and others, it was more important to praise Yan in their critical writing than actually to model their own calligraphy on his.
McNair is very good at describing stylistic traits of calligraphy, but she tends to shy away from extended visual analysis at critical moments in her argument, such as her discussion of a case of calligraphic allusion in So Shi's transcription of an essay by his mentor Ouyang Xiu, its title translated somewhat awkwardly as Record of Enjoying Rich Harvests Pavilion. In this work, MeNair asserts, Su not only transcribed Ouyang's text, he wrote the calligraphy in the style of Yan Zhenqing's Liudui Record of Mr. Xianyu from 762. Su's purpose in choosing this model, McNair believes, was to cloak himself and Ouyang, both victims of partisan attacks, in the mantle of the virtuous Yan Zhenqing. There is no doubt that Su Shi carefully studied Yan's style and could imitate it if he wished, as remarks of Huang Tingjian (1045-1105) quoted by McNair confirm. But we need more help than MeNair gives us to see the subtle resemblance between Su's calligraphy and Yan's, a resemblance that she believes Northern Song viewers wou ld have detected. Illustrated on facing pages, the two works are not strikingly similar: components of Su's characters are more widely spaced and slant more to the upper right, and his brushwork is sharper and leaner. Rather than simply stating that the works are related stylistically. MeNair might have presented similar characters from the two rubbings in a comparative chart or diagram and expanded her stylistic discussion of them, guiding the reader's eye to the visual phenomena on which her argument ultimately must rest.
McNair characterizes her account of Yan Zhenqing as an artistic biography. It is possible to write such a biography because Yan is the first artist in Chinese history-perhaps the first in world history-from whose hand enough reliable works survive to make possible the reconstruction of an entire career, ranging from Yan's Pradhutaratna Pagoda Stele of 752, to his Yan Family Temple Stele of 780. In addition to these two stelae, both preserved in the Forest of Stelae (Beilin) in Xi'an, other extant engraved monuments, early rubbings of now lost works, and at least one ink-written manuscript reveal a striking trajectory from an early style, marked by tilted compositions of individual characters and modulated brushstrokes, to a late style, notable for level compositions and more even, unmodulated strokes. McNair sees this transformation in Yan's calligraphy as a gradual turning away from a metropolitan style that had been closely associated with the court of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-56) in the years before the An Lushan rebellion.
The great merit of McNair's study of Yan Zhenqing lies in the way she has carried the study of Chinese calligraphy far beyond the issues of connoisseurship and aesthetics that have long dominated scholarship in this field. In stressing as she does, however, the relationship between political discourse and the history of calligraphic styles she may have erred in leaving little room for the role of imagination and creativity in her account of how calligraphers practice their art. Her determination to find "models" for calligraphic innovations, shared by nearly all scholars who write about this art, also needs to be reconsidered. In her discussion of Su Shi's copy of Yan's Letter on the Controversy over Sealing Protocol, for example, she argues that So's transformation of Yan's style can be explained only through reference to another piece of Yan's cauigraphy, a work of dubious authenticity titled Poem for General Pei. The unstated assumption that there had to be a model for Su Shi's transformation of Yan's call igraphy is founded on the reality that all calligraphers learn to write by imitating earlier masters. But there remains a question that is perhaps unanswerable but should be addressed: if all writing is based on the study of preexisting models, from what sources do originality and creativity in calligraphy arise?
Like all of Professor McNair's publications, The Upright Brush is founded on excellent sinological research and a sure command of Classical Chinese that is embarrassingly rare among scholars in the field of Chinese art history. It is unfortunate that the publisher, perhaps owing to budgetary restraints, did not include the Chinese texts for the many passages of translations McNair offers. But the author and the publisher both deserve congratulations and thanks for giving us this innovative and badly needed study of one of the towering figures in the history of Chinese art.
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|Author:||Harrist Jr., Robert E.|
|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2001|
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